South Florida travel

March 14, 2004

Report on our south Florida trip March 1-9, 2004, for those who might profit from our experiences (or just to be amused.) The weather was perfect for the whole trip: high 70’sF during the afternoon and high 60’sF in the early morning.

Linda and I flew to Key West, changing in Atlanta, which worked out well. We stayed at The Heron House, four old houses converted into a small hotel a short walk from downtown. Our room was elegant, spacious, well equipped and quiet. The Hotel Marquesa across the street also looked good and has The Café Marquesa, which also looked interesting. We ate at Louie’s Backyard the first evening; we didn’t go for lunch to take advantage of the view as we only had one full day for touring etc, but lunch would have been better. The evening ambiance is also very nice and the food was good to okay (very good sautéed conch.) The second night we dined on the deck at the A&B Lobster House, on the downtown marina; the setting was good, but the food was not great and we had two loud vulgar tables near us. 

A real discovery was Mary O’Shea’s Glass Garden down Simonton Street from our hotel. O’Shea makes mostly flat pieces with a three-day fusion process. She will make pieces to order from the samples in the show and UPS them. She also had nice jewelry from another glass artisan. Just around the corner is the Green Street Art Gallery with much good stuff. There had been an opening of George Carey’s paintings there two days before and they were all sold. He does detailed acrylics of Key West scenes, including close-ups of bunches of coconuts hanging in palms. Carey was there and we had an interesting half hour chat with him. We went to probably twenty galleries elsewhere, mostly on upper Duval Street and found them okay to dreadful. We also found a creative women’s clothing store: From the Ruins, near the Audubon House And we came upon a wood-turner showing his wares among all the junk and silliness of Mallory Pier at sunset; we had a good chat. The chalice of spalted Cuban mahogany we bought from him would have cost at least three times as much in New York.

We enjoyed the creative self-guided audio tour of The Audubon House and garden; its only connection to James Audubon is that he may have painted birds in its garden during his Key West visit. We avoided the guided tour at mildly interesting Hemingway House by using the printed brochure in French. It is available in several languages, but not English as they want to herd you around. No choice though at The Truman Little White House. We skipped the hour-long tour, but did see the two open rooms by the entry. Well, these wouldn’t be successful tourist attractions in many places, but that’s what there is. 

We were startled to find we had arrived in Key West at the start of Biker’s Week. There were noisy Harley-Davidsons everywhere, mostly driven by slovenly, fat men. (Key West is also full of fat people off the cruise ships and tour busses.) We were even more surprised as we drove through the Keys March 3 to see many hundreds more Harleys en route

to Key West. The following days must have been a non-biker’s hell. We stopped in Islamorada at The Morada Gallery which is one of the better all-around craft galleries we’ve seen anywhere. And we had a fine lunch at the nearby Squid Row Restaurant:  conch fritters and grilled dolphin (not what we think of as dolphin, but what we think of as dorade.) (We once ordered orata al forno at Da Ivo in Venice and it was presented to us as “roasted goldfish.”)

We arrived late that afternoon at The Flamingo Lodge, the only lodging in The Everglades National Park. It is a 38 mile drive in from the entrance to the park near Florida City. While it is run by a concession, not the National Park Service, it is an archetype of a shabby, inefficient government operation. (The Park Service Rangers we came across seemed quite sharp.) We had reserved a cottage, which was basic but not bad inside: two rooms, kitchenette, okay furniture etc. But there was no screened veranda for sitting and one could not open the windows as the mechanisms were broken and anyway the screens were too worn out to be effective, as we were told when we asked, as if this were quite normal. 

We took the 10:30am inland boat cruise the next day, the 8:00 cruise on which we had reserved having been cancelled. We saw some crocodiles and had a lot of trees and mangroves explained to us, but few birds. We also took the sunset cruise in Florida Bay, which was quite nice. We had a good morning walk along the bayfront near the cottages at low tide and saw many birds. However, the walks we had planned to take along the many trails were impossible due to the mosquitoes. March, being toward the end of the dry season, is supposed to be a very low mosquito month. I cannot imagine it during the heavy season. Another feature of the dry season is that the birds and animals congregate in sloughs. On several of these boardwalks have been built for viewing. These are terrific and were mosquito free. The best is The Anhinga Trail, not far from the park entrance at the Royal Palm Visitor Center. It has a huge variety of wildlife which doesn’t seem to mind being on display for all the nearby humans. The Eco Pond, near the hotel, is also good and we went several times. 

If one wants to see the Everglades, I would recommend going first to the Ranger Station at the entrance (the film is good,) then to the Anhinga Trail nearby for an hour; leave there at least two hours before sunset; drive 38 miles to the Flamingo Lodge, check in to a room (reserve well in advance,) not a cottage; go to the Eco Pool, take the sunset cruise (you have a choice of a pontoon boat or a sailboat, but reserve in advance.) (The advantages of the less glamourous pontoon boat, The Bald Eagle are: it has comfortable seats; it positions itself at sunset so that the sailboat, The Windsong, is directly between it and the setting sun. Great kitsch.) Dine at the restaurant, which is basic. In the morning go back to the Eco Pool, and walk along the bay if it is low tide, then go back to the Anhinga Trail and leave.

Having shortened our stay in The Everglades we succeeded in getting a reservation at The Biltmore in Coral Gables and were then upgraded to a beautiful suite as the room did not turn out to be available. What luck. We went to the annual Orchid Show at the Coconut Grove Exhibition Center; it was very interesting. We dined that night at the highly recommended Ortantique on shabby Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. It was terrible; everything was over spiced and the noise level beyond belief. But it was chockfull of local people who seemed to think it was great. Coral Gables has some beautiful streets lined with banyan and other exotic trees.

The next day we went to the Fairchild Tropical Garden, which we enjoyed very much. We had lunch at The Pampas Grill at Ponce de Leon and Calle Ocho. We had their Argentine mixed grill, which was excellent. (It even had grilled sweetbreads along with the various cuts of beef and sausages.) (The choice was made as it was near a laundromat where we washed and dried as we ate.) (So much for the guidebooks and the reviews on the Miami Herald website, which were usually wrong.) 

We stayed Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights at The Tides Hotel in South Miami Beach. It is a very nice hotel, as it should be for the price. Our spacious room had a beautiful view over the beach and the sea, complete with sunrises and moonrises, as the moon was full when we were there. Ocean Drive in South Beach, between 5th and 15th Streets is completely lined with bars and restaurants, some in front of hotels. Collins Avenue is one street back and then Washington. They are lined with shops of all kinds, but none of interest to us. The Art Deco architecture is great. The buffed bodies in South Beach are the opposite of Key West, and not just among the gays, although they do set a good example. We had decided to be in Miami Beach during the Wine and Food Festival, partly because we thought we might go to an event, but more because we thought that there wouldn’t be another festival at the same time. Ha. The Big Rock Music Festivals were on. Big Noise. They went on all night Saturday, although I imagine that it wasn’t that much different from a regular Saturday night in South Beach. If you want to stay at an oceanfront hotel in South Beach, Monday and Tuesday nights would be best as many of the bars etc are closed. 

Saturday night we dined at 1220 at The Tides, the restaurant on the terrace in front of our hotel which is highly rated by the reviews we had read. Linda’s ceviche was so jalapeñoed as to be inedible. The eggplant in her main course was not cooked enough to eat. My grilled Florida lobster salad and tuna main course were okay.

Sunday afternoon we went to the big tasting of the Wine Spectator South Beach Wine and Food Festival. We went at 2:00 when it was opened to the general public, knowing that The Trade had been there since 11:00. Well, I had thought that The Trade would be somewhat calm since they get samples all the time, but the crowd that was already there was pushy, raucous etc. Only half the booths are wine, and not great stuff. We tasted quite a few sauvignons blancs and chardonnays, noshed from the restaurant booths and left without having found a wine we would want to order. 

Sunday evening we dined at Wish at The Hotel at 8th and Collins. The setting is in a nice garden; the food and service were very good. This would probably be the best hotel at which to stay. No view, but it seemed elegant and the immediate neighborhood seemed relatively quiet.

Monday we had a pleasant walk down to the calmer south end of Miami Beach. We bought quite a few stone crab claws at Joe’s Takeout, along with a bottle of his Coup de Coeur Chardonnay and enjoyed them in our hotel room. We were there half an hour before the 11:30 opening and no line had formed yet, so we cannot say if the tales of long waits are true. 

We went to the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach which was very disappointing. It may be better for some special shows; its upcoming expansion may help too. We also went to The Wolfsonian in a nicely converted warehouse at 10th and Washington. The art and objets are mostly 1900-1945 and are very interesting. Unfortunately, the expositions are presented against a background of silly Marxist drivel on the history of the last 150 years rather than explaining their artistic coherence and trends. (i.e.: “These posters glorify the Imperialism of the Democracies which enslaved the native populations to provide raw materials for their new industries.” Really.)

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